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Post-Roman Britain

Vortigern and Vortimer

by Mick Baker, 8 July 2002

Vortigern was almost certainly a title rather than a proper name - it means 'overlord' [analogous to 'high king] [1].

According to the Annales Cambriæ, Vortigern's time in command of Britain took place during the Roman consulship of Felix and Taurus. This places it circa AD 425.

According to Nennius, one Vitalinus, (assumed to be a member of the 'Vortigern' family, as Vortigern's grandfather also bears this name), fought against Ambrosius twelve years after Vortigern came to power. However, as the period in which Ambrosius was leading the fight for the Britons probably commenced circa 460 [perhaps a touch earlier], then there seems to be an anomaly. Vortigern's reign needs to be placed in the 440s.

There are two conflicting accounts of the death of Vortigern - both recorded by Nennius. In one he perishes when his fortress is consumed by fire (when Germanus was present in England on his second visit: 446/447).

In the other he is universally hated because of his duplicity in inviting the barbarians to Britain [despite this being well-established Roman policy which he simply seems to have followed, perhaps without taking quite enough care in picking his mercenaries], and dies of a broken heart, without honour.

If he died when Germanus was present then that places his death in AD 447, and yet both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC) and Bede insist that Vortigern was alive in 455.

Bearing in mind the fact that the name 'Vortigern' was almost certainly a title [although this does not preculde it being used as a name], the only way of reconciling all the threads of this evidence is to propose that there were two 'Vortigerns'.

Map of Britain AD 450-600
This map of Britain concentrates on British territories and kingdoms which were established during the fourth and fifth centuries AD, as the Saxons and Angles began their settlement of the east coast (click or tap on map to view full sized)

[1] Just as 'Vortigern' is a title [and perhaps also a name], it seems likely that 'Vortimer' is also one - perhaps meaning 'crown prince' or 'heir apparent'.

Vortigern I comes to power circa 425. He dies in a fire in 447.

Vortigern II or Vortimer I, or Britu succeeds in 447. He invites Jutish mercenaries led by the Anglian princes, Hengist and Horsa, into the territory of Ceint in 449.

At first the mercenaries tackle their assigned tasks, but later they rebel, in 455 (according to ASC, Hengist fought against Vortigern at Egelesprep in 455 but according to Nennius there is a discrepancy: 'Vortimer fought four keen battles against them... The second battle was... called Episford in their language...'

Both record this battle as the one in which Horsa died. Vortimer was deposed circa 458. Ambrosius fought against Britu's successor, Vitalinus, in 459.

It has been established from the pillar of Eliseg that Britu succeeded his father, Vortigern, and yet Nennius fails to include the name Britu in his list of Vortigern's sons.

The proposal is therefore that, at the death of 'the Vortigern', 'the Vortimer' [Britu] took over to become the second 'Vortigern'.



Text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature for the History Files.